Story by Andre Teo and Jan Lin. Photos by Glorijoy Tan and Tan Chor Seng.
A player in action during the recent NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge. (Photo 1 © NUS)
The mention of Singapore water polo brings to mind the 22 consecutive gold medals Singapore have amassed at the South East Asian Games, crowning the Republic as the undisputed South East Asian water polo king. Yet, public interest in water polo remains low as compared to other sports. Unbeknownst to many, the sport that has brought much pride to our nation was dropped from the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) calendar five years ago, which discouraged the sport's development in Singapore.
A group of water polo enthusiasts from the National University of Singapore (NUS) fought against this exclusion and their efforts paid off when the organisers agreed to reinstate water polo into the IVP calendar with effect from the 2009-2010 season. The NUS water polo team shared their story with Red Sports to encourage other student leaders to step forward and dare to dream.
RS: We understand that Water Polo has been dropped from the IVP sporting calendar but it was revived after the NUS team ran the NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge in January this year. Can you share with us the situation of the sport at tertiary level before the revival took place?
NUS: Yes. five years ago, water polo was dropped from the increasingly overcrowded IVP sporting calendar due to the lack of interest amongst the polytechnic teams. Since then, the NUS water polo team has taken up the challenge of sustaining water polo at the tertiary level through the annual NUS Water Polo Open but despite the efforts, the last edition of the tournament saw only 4 teams taking part, including a non-tertiary team. So when a couple of us took over the NUS water polo team in June last year, to say that water polo in the tertiary level was in disarray would be an understatement.
RS: So was the school administration supportive of your team's quest to reinstate water polo's IVP status?
NUS: Well, it was understandable that the school administration was naturally reticent when we approached them on expanding the NUS Open and reinstating our IVP status. They were unsure if there was sufficient interest to sustain the NUS Open as previous editions of the tournament were poorly supported and organized. However, they did keep an open mind as there was a change of leadership in the team and they supported us in whatever ways they could.
Still, we were frustrated by what we perceived as a lack of support from the school and we then decided to embark on several initiatives in hopes of increasing the profile of the sport within the school and thereby convinced the school of the need to reinstate our IVP status.
RS: What do you mean by "expanding NUS Open"?
NUS: We basically felt that a revamp of the NUS Open was needed. Looking at the effect of the Prime Minister's Cup on dragon-boating and Bolderactive on rock climbing, we felt that increasing the prestige of the NUS Open would lead to the combined effect of sustaining interest amongst the tertiary institutions and ensuring the continuity of the NUS Open.
RS: And how did you guys go about with this revamp?
NUS: First, we contacted all the team captains of the tertiary institutions individually to get their implicit support for the NUS Open. We needed to first know that they are interested and keen on participating in the tournament. We felt that while the NUS Water Polo team is the main organizers of the NUS Open, it is necessary to get the other tertiary teams on board as they are important stakeholders in the tournament too.
Second, we explored the possibility of having a patron or title sponsor on board to increase the visibility and prestige of the tournament. We remember that our then-Prime Minister, SM Goh Chok Tong, had embraced the idea of an annual Prime Minister's Cup between NUS - NTU that mirrors the famous Oxbridge race in the United Kingdom. This has led to a surge of interest in Dragon Boating in Singapore.
So we felt that a similar initiative in Water Polo would have a significant groundswell effect on this sport in Singapore. We have also seen how the title sponsors in tournaments such as the Aviva Open (Badminton), NTUC Fairprice Super League (Netball) and the Standard Chartered Marathon, have assisted these sports to become regular fixtures of the national sporting calendar.
RS: Were there any obstacles faced while accomplishing these two steps for a successful revamp?
NUS: Getting the first job done was relatively easy. By September last year, the other local universities (NTU, SMU and SIM) and polytechnics (Singapore Poly, Ngee Ann Poly, Temasek Poly, Nanyang Poly and Republic Poly) had indicated their interest in participating in the revamped NUS Open.
But up until then, we were nowhere closer to securing a patron or title sponsor for the tournament. Marketing ourselves as a completely student-driven initiative, there were some who doubted our ability as students to embark on such an initiative but most of the corporations and prospective patrons we approached were generally supportive of our initiative. However, they were unable to commit at that current moment.
It was at this moment that Great Eastern Life stepped in. Great Eastern Life has been active in the local sporting scene with its very own Great Eastern Women 10k and recent partnership with the S.League. Great Eastern Life believed in our ability to bring such a high profile tournament to fruition. Their involvement in the event was a great boost for all of us involved and effectively spurred us on.
And it didn't take long for a ripple effect to occur, as the other sponsors such as NewUrbanMale.com, Singapore WaterPolo and Zouk soon came on board. By then, we were ready to bring water polo to a higher level of participation and recognition not just in tertiary institutions but also in Singapore.
RS: How did the school then react to these success indicators as you mentioned NUS administration was hesitant in the beginningâ€¦? Was there a change of mind?
NUS: Yes there was. And to recognise our efforts, the school administration then lobbied the IVP Council for the reinstatement of Water Polo in the IVP Calendar for the academic year 2009/2010. One of the key reasons cited for the eventual successful inclusion was the united front put together by all the tertiary water polo team captains in supporting the NUS Open.
All our efforts culminated in the NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge held over two weeks in January 2009. It was the first time a tertiary sporting tournament of this scale was conceptualized, organized and run by students. Most of us have had no experience in the organization and running of the event but we are thankful for the support and understanding shown by our sponsors and the school administration.
RS: So can you conclude your success story by sharing with us the lessons you have learnt from this virgin experience?
NUS: We believe that Singapore is moving towards the goal of being both a regional and international sporting hub. So to accomplish its aim, there is a growing call for sporting leaders, administrators and volunteers to step up and answer the call.
Events such as the NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge will provide a holistic approach to tertiary level sports involvement by providing young budding student-athletes the chance to move beyond the playing field and hone their administrative and leadership skills.
The experience of being involved from the conceptualization to the organization and to the daily running of the tournament was an invaluable one for all of us involved. We believe that an experience like this helps a student to develop organizational and management skills that are quintessential for future leaders – be it in Singapore sports or in other sectors.
For more details of the NUS water polo team's effort in resurrecting their sport in the IVP league, do contact Andre Teo at [email protected]
NUS water polo players – Matthew, Nigel and Diyang (left to right) – sharing a joke at the NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge’s final. (Photo 2 © NUS)
Brothers Bryon Teo and Andre Teo (right) are instrumental figures in resurrecting water polo in the IVP Games. (Photo 3 © NUS)
What a block! (Photo 4 © NUS)
“I’m a better number 4 than you, hoo-ah!” (Photo 5 © NUS)
Swam dunk! (Photo 6 © NUS)
Participants of the 2009 NUS-Great Eastern Water Polo Challenge. (Photo 7 © NUS)